One of the attributes my dad modeled for me was that of being a learner. He was an avid reader, inquisitive, and always trying to figure things out. When something wasn’t working, he was just as apt to figure out why and fix it as he was to take it to someone else to repair it. And in his jobs – as an electrician and as a pastor – he studied to learn new skills and get better at what he was doing. I am still amazed when I think about how he taught himself to write electrical software programs so that he could get work doing electrical engineering. He was an example to me of the importance of being a life-long learner.
I saw this attribute illustrated in my own life years ago, when my family was having a get-together at my parents’ home. While we were sitting around the dinner table, my dad made a comment about someday wanting to build a deck on the back of the house. One of my two brothers suggested that we do it the next day, because there likely would be very few times that we would all be together at the same time again. So, my dad sketched out the plans, and the next morning we went to the lumber store, picked up all the supplies, and then the four of us proceeded to spend the next eight hours building a large deck. What a great memory!
When we were all finished, my dad commented on how he could see certain attributes of each of our personalities throughout the process. One of the observations that he made about me was that I was constantly asking questions, trying to understand why were doing things in a certain way, and learning from the experience. And that observation was an accurate reflection. In fact, on the StrengthsFinder profile, “learner” is one of my top characteristics. As I have continued to study, learn, and grow in my leadership development, I have seen that this is a common characteristic of effective leadership: leaders are learners.
Bennis and Thomas, in an article originally published in the Harvard Business Review, found this to be true in all of their interview subjects for their research. Their interviewees all described opportunities for reinvention that came from transformative experiences, and all of them placed great value on the learning that took place from those experiences. The authors went on to describe this learning by saying, “In the extreme, the capacity for reinvention comes to resemble eternal youth – a kind of vigor, openness, and an enduring capacity for wonder that is the antithesis of stereotyped old age . . . this [is a] quality, a delight in lifelong learning, which every leader displays, regardless of age . . . it’s an appetite for learning and self-development, a curiosity and passion for life” (Bennis & Thomas, Crucibles of Leadership, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, p. 106). What they discovered is that leaders are constantly learning, and doing so with passion and enthusiasm.
I have often told my own children that you learn just about everything from experience – either your own experience or someone else’s, but it’s usually far less painful to learn from someone else’s experience. However, the pain (or joy) of learning from your own experience can often be a much more effective teacher. In another article originally published in the Harvard Business Review, John Kotter pointed out that “leaders almost always have had opportunities during their twenties and thirties to actually try to lead, to take a risk, and to learn from both triumphs and failures. Such learning seems essential in developing a wide range of leadership skills and perspectives. These opportunities also teach people something about both the difficulty of leadership and its potential for producing change” (Kotter, What Leaders Really Do, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, p.53). A key word in that last sentence is “potential” – the potential for growth and change is there, but only if the leader learns. Therefore, if the leader is a learner, he or she will learn from every opportunity, and in that process will continually become a more effective leader. But if that person is not a learner, he is destined to repeat the same mistakes and will fail to develop.
In essence, learning needs to be part of the nature of an effective leader. Expanding a broad, general knowledge base; increasing an understanding of human behavior; studying culture and history on both a macro-level (globally and nationally) and a micro-level (organizationally); learning more about leadership; taking up new hobbies and interests; asking questions; exploring, discovering, reading, and engaging the mind; all can be part of the growth and development of a leader. Becoming a learner will stretch your mind, build your knowledge, and open your eyes to new insights. It will help you to make connections between ideas and to understand people. It will help you to be a more effective leader. Leaders are learners. Be a learner.
Bennis, W. G., and Thomas, R. J., “Crucibles of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011). Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.
Kotter, J. P., “What Leaders Really Do,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011). Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.